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Mel Gibson's sacrifice of the Maya

Calmly but tensely, she told me her gruesome story. Then she asked me not to write about it, thinking that they might track her down and kill her, too. A Quiche Maya woman, she had moved to the capital city of Guatemala, driven out of her home town of Totonicapan by the violence that consumed her husband and threatened to engulf her whole people.

It was 1987, 20 years ago, just as the massive repression of the Maya people of Guatemala was shifting from outright massacre by military forces to the terror of officially created ''civil patrols'' that targeted individuals for assassination. Even in Guatemala, it is hard today to imagine the stark brutality of those years, the so-called civil war that saw more than 400 Maya villages razed to the ground and tens of thousands of hard-working farming people - men, women and children - shot, burned and tortured in the most horrible campaign of extermination of modern American times.

The middle-aged woman lived in hiding then, her children at her side, a teenaged son still visibly shaken by fear even months after his father's brutal killing. ''My boy is a little crazed now,'' she told me. ''He cannot sleep.''

She is past the danger of persecution now, lost from official memory among the 100,000 widows from that time, so I can tell her story.

Her husband was a Daykeeper, a medicine person of the ancient Maya calendar, well-known and respected by the dozens of families he assisted in their rites of life passage, from birth through puberty and marriage, performing the rituals and ceremonies inherent to his ancient spiritual tradition. His work required him to travel at night to outlying hamlets, and often dawn would find him burning the sweet copal pom at remote mountain altars, connecting himself and his people to the spirits of nature and time, to cosmological deities and family lineage ancestors, as prescribed by a way of life that has sustained from the time of creation.

In their village, she related, the civil patrol was made up of ''evangelicos,'' from so-called Christian sects that persecuted the ministrations of traditional healers as the ''Devil's work.'' Thus, her husband was targeted, trailed one evening as he returned home from a ceremony. Beaten and hogtied, they took him to his own home, where they hanged him by his feet and forced his wife and children to watch as they gouged out his eyes, cut off his tongue and bled him to death. Before the so-called Christians left, they tied a sign to his chest that labeled him a ''brujo,'' or witch.

I remembered my session with the Mayan widow, which I did not publish until now, while sitting through Mel Gibson's new movie, ''Apocalypto.'' Gibson's production, full of dramatic, vintage-Hollywood chase scenes and replete with the bloodletting that characterizes all his movies, is exciting enough. Major critics have hailed it as a ''four star'' film, ''riveting'' and ''... a visceral visual experience,'' while ''expert'' anthropological advisers defend the set pieces, costumes and even the reconstructed Yucatec Maya dialect that the mostly Native actors sharply enunciate. Gibson himself is busy giving interviews in which he assesses the decline of Maya civilization and projects his movie as a metaphor for the perils of all civilizations, even hinting at some type of parallel with the current direction of American polity.

Conversely, more substantial scholars of Maya civilization have pointed out the many glaring inaccuracies of the production, which conflates the various eras of Maya history and horribly exaggerates the incidence of human sacrifice among a people actually recognized for their overwhelmingly peaceful village culture, even today steeped in respect for harmonious interaction with nature and the deepest appreciation for family, children, elders and cosmic sense of place.

Gibson's movie will make serious money, no doubt, and will probably win awards, popular culture in America being what it is. Already some Latino groups and some American Indians are praising it for its employment of our ethnic brethren, while its critics get slammed for ''political correctness'' and sour grapes. So it goes. Given Gibson's passion for Christian civilization as the answer to humanity's inhumanity, however, one can only surmise that ''Apocalypto's'' final scene, where the distraught protagonist encounters the incoming Spanish Christian conquest, is the director's signal for the ''new beginning'' he keeps professing. But those of us who well remember the real Maya holocaust, early ushered by Conquistador Pedro de Alvarado but culminating in the 1980s with the professed Christian regime of the born-again dictator, General Efrain Rios Montt, will not be mesmerized with this shameful entertainment. For myself, I can still see the ravaged face of the Quiche Daykeeper's widow, only 20 years ago, as she recalled the bloody sacrifice of her husband by the glinty metal knives of executioners still carrying out their brutal work in the name of Jesus Christ.

Jose Barreiro, Ph.D., is assistant director of research at the National Museum of the American Indian.